Book review: ‘Confessions of a Young Novelist’ by Umberto Eco

Los Angeles Times

Umberto Eco wrote his first novel, “The Name of the Rose,” in 1980. It was the first of only five novels, and it was a runaway bestseller. “The Name of the Rose” was so popular that critics accused Eco, a semiotics professor, of programming a computer with a secret formula for a successful novel. Eco was, of course, offended and fired back a series of sarcastic modest proposals that pretty much flattened his critics.

There may not be a formula, or a recipe, but there are ingredients for a successful novel, and now, decades later, Eco has decided to tell us what he believes they are.

“The Name of the Rose” began with a list of the names of monks. Eco is very big on lists and litanies, practical and aesthetic. They are the Big Bang, the cosmic soup from which the universe and the practical cartography of his novels emerge. “The history of literature is full of obsessive collections of objects,” he writes. From the Rabelaisian excess Eco carves landscapes and cities, maps and routes, and he places characters within them. The characters plot their plots, and conduct their lives and discussions within these routes.

Now for the characters. Eco is fascinated by the extent to which fictional characters become real, live their own lives beyond his scope and beyond the covers of the book. Why and how are readers moved by literary characters? Eco’s answer is: Readers must recognize not only the character but also the world in which they live, their context, their universe. If the author does not create a credible universe, the reader will never suspend disbelief.


The third ingredient is the mysterious “seminal image” that motivates each of Eco’s forays into fiction. The “seminal image” is revealed to the writer during the period of “literary pregnancy.” In the case of “The Name of the Rose,” it was a memory of a childhood visit to a Benedictine monastery. Eco found himself in the library in front of the “Acta Sanctorum.” “Browsing through that enormous volume in profound silence, while a few beams of light filtered through the stained-glass window, I must have felt something like a thrill. More than forty years later, that thrill emerged from my subconscious,” Eco writes. He identifies a similar impulse at the heart of each of his novels.

The fourth ingredient: After the map and the list and the seminal image, there must be constraints, for example, the choice of a historical period. Eco confesses that, since he wrote his dissertation on medieval aesthetics, he did not have to do much research to write “The Name of the Rose.”

Finally, there is the problem of the reader. Eco describes his Model Reader (as opposed to the Empirical Reader — the nit-picking, point-losing, detail mongering boor). Of course, we all want to be model readers, and in this way we are manipulated, willingly, by authors. The more clever the manipulation, the better the relationship and the experience of reading the book.

Which translates, crassly, into more copies sold. A veritable “vertigo of infinity,” a plenitude of names and objects and dollars and pages that overwhelms, delights and subverts the constraints of the poor old novel.

And there you have it — the lists and maps from which you construct your universe, the characters who inhabit the universe, the seminal image and the constraints. A reader can almost make out the sound of Eco chuckling. Go on, he might as well be saying. Now you try it.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.